The Columbus Blue Jackets were among the first big spenders in the free agent buying frenzy this offseason, acquiring coveted blueliners Adam Foote and Bryan Berard to complement their group of strong young prospects. The move sent a message to the rest of the NHL that Columbus is looking to win this season. However, in order for the franchise to make their first ever playoff appearance, the team will need all of their young prospects to step up and contribute. Columbus is looking to see big contributions from second-year center Nikolai Zherdev as well as first-year players center Dan Fritsche and goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
Last season in the Ontario Hockey League, Fritsche scored 18 goals and 37 points and had a +26 rating in just 30 games. The 20-year-old has already begun making a name for himself with the Blue Jackets, tying for the club lead in goals with two. And although Fritsche has been able to contribute to the club, the leap from junior hockey to the NHL has been an adjustment.
“It’s an extremely fast-paced game when you come right from juniors to the NHL. It’s a really huge jump unlike coming from the American Hockey League to the NHL, that’s a jump but it’s not as huge as junior to the NHL. It takes some games to get used to it, to get into the flow but eventually you get into it,” said Fritsche.
Leclaire, a 2001 first round draft pick, has also begun contributing for Columbus. In just his first NHL season, he’s already appeared in two of the team’s five games and although both were losses, the Blue Jackets coaching staff has been pleased with his level of play.
“We’re going to play who’s playing well and we think we’ve got two No. 1 goaltenders from training camp. Leclaire’s an up and coming goaltender that we drafted up high. He’s right where he should be [in his development] and we’re really excited with him,” says Columbus Head Coach Gerard Gallant.
Leclaire, who played in the AHL last season, has already noticed differences in the new NHL.
“There’s more penalties, more scoring chances because there’s more power plays. Teams have to defend differently now because you’re not allowed to cross check and hook when you’re killing the penalty. Skill players have more time and room to do their thing. We’re seeing a lot of goals around the league. That’s how it’s going to be so I have to learn to play in it,” said Leclaire.
Despite the new rule changes and the sudden boon in scoring across the league, the Blue Jackets have yet to share in the goal scoring frenzy either at even strength or with the man advantage. As a result, they have seen their record fall to 1-4-0. Their power play began to click in their recent trip to Anaheim, where they were able to convert two chances.
“I think the power play especially in the new NHL with all the penalties that are being called is the biggest part of the game. Unfortunately it hasn’t been working for us and that’s a big reason why we haven’t been able to pull off as many wins. It started going today. We just have to get some shots through and get some people to the net and start banging in some rebounds,” Fritsche noted.
While other components of the Blue Jackets offense have begun to click, the team will need to see contributions from sophomore Zherdev in order to succeed. In Zherdev’s first year, he scored 13 goals and 34 points in 57 NHL games. He was among the top 10 NHL rookies in assists, points, and power play goals. While the season is still young, the Blue Jackets have noticed a considerable drop in Zherdev’s efforts this year.
“Zherdev’s been here for a second year now and his play needs to get a lot better. He’s got to get to the net. He’s got a lot of skill and talent, but he’s got to start working a lot harder for our team to be successful and for him to be successful,” says Head Coach Gerard Gallant.
“In his first year, he competed harder, worked harder. This year, he’s a different guy,” he added.
Despite the team’s early struggles, Gallant feels that the team is headed in the right direction.
“We added some good veterans, Foote and Hrdina, so we have some great leadership here. Some of the young kids are coming along. That’s how you make a team — you build it with the young guys and your veteran players and it’s been really good. We’re going through a rough spot, but I think we’ll have a good team in the future.”
NOTES: The CBJ game vs. Anaheim was the second of a three-game road swing through California. The trip concludes on Sunday vs. Los Angeles. Center Gilbert Brule, the Blue Jackets first round draft pick in 2005, made the roster after notching 2 goals and 5 points during exhibition play. Brule suffered a fractured sternum on Oct. 7 and will miss the next 6-8 weeks. Five of Columbus’ six first round round selections made the 2005-06 roster: Leclaire, Rick Nash, Zherdev, Rostislav Klesla and Brule. Fifteen different players have scored at least one point for the Blue Jackets, three of which are rookies (Fritsche, Brule and left wing Jaroslav Balastik.) Fritsche is tied for fourth among rookies with two goals. The Jackets are one of two teams (Chicago) with three rookies who have scored an assist or goal.
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